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American Independent


Edited by John Berra


Directory of World Cinema Series, vol. 2

Bristol: Intellect, 2010

Paperback. 327 p. ISBN 978-1841503684. £15.95


Reviewed by André Kaenel

Université de Lorraine


As John Berra reminds us in his short introduction to this second volume of the Directory of World Cinema [cf. review of volume 5, American Hollywood, by Nolwenn Mingant], defining American independent cinema is no easy task. It is an elusive movement (if it is one), that thrives on the cultivation of opposites, that “balances art with exploitation and celebrates the conventions of genre whilst frequently defying them” [6]. Its institutional or cultural location is equally hard to place, somewhere “on the margins of the mainstream”, where independent cinema “remains a vital force, with enterprising directors overcoming budgetary restrictions to deliver films that are timely and socially relevant, emphasizing characters over caricatures and psychology over spectacle” [6-7]. Circumscribing independent cinema in this way is risky, though, despite Berra’s recognition of its “undeniable diversity”. For just as undeniably, many “mainstream” films also display some of these very same qualities, as American Independent implicitly acknowledges by ranging over a large selection of films, from White Zombie (1931) to mostly recent productions of the last twenty or thirty years. The blurring between independent productions and Hollywood (“Indiewood”) is bookended by two moments: 1999, when “the independent sensibility successfully penetrated the Hollywood mainstream” with films like Being John Malkovich, Magnolia and Three Kings, and 2009, when Hollywood distanced itself from the independent sector to concentrate on “youth-oriented franchise films” made by politically engaged directors working outside the studios (e.g. Paranormal Activity) [7].

But this is not a book organized, in classical, predictable cinephile fashion, around directors or genres, although several of them are inevitably featured. Berra and his thirty-odd contributors judiciously eschew the temptation to establish a canon of “Indie” directors, which might have resulted in a dubious Who’s Who of marginal excellence, to offer instead a “road map” of a wide, shifting field. Thus, David O Russell, Wes Anderson and Steven Soderbergh, are in—at least in part, thanks to a few of their films—while Ridley Scott and George Clooney (as director) are out. To be sure, the familiar focus on directors and genres is there: one refreshing entry is devoted to Stuart Gordon, Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch, another one to John Waters, and there are others dealing with crime films and the documentary form. But this directory is mainly structured around offbeat thematic categories that mirror the field’s capaciousness, such as “Chemical World” (films on addiction and drugs), “Familial Dysfunction”, “Rural Americana”, “The Suburbs”, Slackers” (on youth cinema) or “Narrative Disorder” (alternative approaches to storytelling). Every section opens with a framing introduction of three to four pages and contains about ten essays on individual films, each one offering basic credits information, a brief synopsis and a critique.

“Narrative disorder” and a particular tone of voice are perhaps the most recognizable marks of independent cinema but in his introduction to the section on documentary films, Matt Delman makes a persuasive case for documentary being the essence of the “Indie” movement: “By utilizing small crews, tight budgets and guerilla film-making techniques, the documentary embodies the original ethos of American independent cinema” [129]. That many of the fiction films discussed in the volume do not come close to this basic, radical definition is another sign of the independent label’s fungibility. An examination of the changes undergone by American independent films since, say, the 1960’s, in terms of their relations to mainstream cinema and to American politics, their economics and their prestige, would therefore have been useful. Thus Matt Delman’s introduction to the documentary film section notes the commercial and critical success in recent years of documentaries by Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock filmed on a shoestring budget, then zeroes in on Titan (2009), produced by four film students from the University of North Carolina, which documents—and opposes—the construction of a giant cement plant in North Carolina. But it fails to connect this success to the broad, radical opposition to the policies of the George W. Bush presidency—although Neil Mitchell’s discussion of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 does so.

Also regrettably missing is any treatment of the evolution (purists might call it “cooptation”) of individual directors: the differences between the raw edginess of Reservoir Dogs and the self-conscious pomposity of Inglourious Basterds, to take only one example, owes much to the construction, by himself and by critics, not only of Quentin Tarantino as an “auteur” but of independent cinema as, in many ways, the norm of a cinema whose flirtation with the mainstream has become one of its salient—and problematic—traits. Sean Wilson’s sharp capsule of Tarantino in his critique of Pulp Fiction (“a magpie at heart, having accumulated a vast knowledge of cinema and regurgitating it onscreen in his own inimitable way” [121]) can equally serve as an indictment or praise of the man.

I am not mounting a defense of the purity of independent form or lamenting the devaluation or selling out of some auteurs. I am rather regretting the paucity of contextual (historical, political and economic) information in the book, the sort that might have helped readers understand what happened to independent cinema and to some of the people who made its success between the 1960’s and today—and how. 

But this may be an unfair reproach. As it stands, Independent Cinema has a lot to offer and largely succeeds in its ambition to draw a “road map” of an expansive field. The map would have been far easier to navigate with the assistance of an index, however. Readers looking for a particular film or director will unfortunately have to resort to flipping through the pages. They will also have to excuse, if they can, the annoying misspellings (Casavetes, Bill Crosby, Edgar Allen Poe, Tournier [Tourneur], Michael Hanke, Emilio Estevetz, Seymore Cassel, Meya Deren), the occasional typos (“clack [black] spectators”) and other minor errors (Detour was released in 1945, not 1947), and they will puzzle at the Tristram Shandy-like blank space that should have been filled by a critique of House of 1,000 Corpses [75]. But the book includes a useful bibliography and webography—and a test. Some of the territory it charts will be familiar to many readers but John Berra and his contributors have a keen, loving eye for indie films. I have found their judgments assured, fair and most of the time enlightening and I have appreciated their unfailing attention to matters of aesthetics and narrative form. The volume often leaves the path of the familiar to explore the offbeat, the quirky, the unexpected, and to invite the reader on a journey of discovery.


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